Houstonia 101

What’s in a (Street) Name?

Houston’s street names can be a linguistic minefield.

June 1, 2013 Published in the June 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Of all our celebrated phonemes, Kuykendahl remains the least understood. Not one syllable of that I-45-exit-62-Cypress-to-Spring connector is pronounced the way it looks. And the Key Map krazyness doesn’t end there. From Beauchamp to Bissonnet, Tellepsen to Tuam, our metropolis is nothing short of a linguistic minefield. On the plus side, distinguishing newcomers from lifers is a snap. Herewith, 19 ways to tell when there’s a for’ner in your midst. 


Though a fun little name already, many transplants can’t help spicing things up by adding an extra a—as in Alameda. True Houstonians resist that temptation and say Al-mee-da.


The pronunciation of this darling Woodland Heights thoroughfare is part of a grand local tradition: mangling French pronunciation whenever possible, in this case favoring not Bo-shomp but Beecham. As a recent transplant put it, “Everyone gives me [unprintable expletive, though pronounceable] when I get French up in that piece. To the point of fisticuffs.” (Another dead giveaway: No local ever says fisticuffs.


It’s something of a major artery, so newcomers quickly learn it’s Biss-uh-nett, but if you catch them early enough you might hear some doozies. Some have been known to say Bi-SON-net, as if they were referring to a dual construction of one of Shakespeare’s poems. The Drawl has with our own ears heard a fancypants woman give it the full Gallic Bee-sawn-ay treatment. Mais non, madame. 


The Drawl always knew it was Charters, even back in high school, when our Kinkaid girlfriend used to mock us for not saying Shart, as if the Warehouse District had suddenly sprouted flying buttresses or something. (Look who’s laughing now, Jennifer!) 


Another French one, another Houston mauling. Maybe it’s Shehn-a-vair in fey New Orleans, but here it’s Chin-uh-vurt.


As it happens, The Drawl was conceived just a couple of houses down from the corner of Dunlavy and West Alabama, thus claiming the pronunciation Dun-lay-vy as part of our birthright. Nevertheless, émigrés continue to defy us with Dun-lav-vy. Trust us on this one — Dunlavy is embedded in our DNA.


The street is El-jin. The town on the way to Austin is Elgg-in.


Few-kway not F***-wa, although The Drawl does alight on the latter every now and then, just for fun. 


The H is silent; the town is named for the oil family who pronounced it that way and whose efforts hultimately gave us Exxon/Mobil. Having grown up here, The Drawl always thought that the adjective “humble,” meaning modest, was pronounced with a silent H as well. We ate a lot of umble pie over that.


Kirk-en-doll. The absolute gold standard when it comes to separating the Houstonian from the non-.

Laura Koppe

It’s Copy, not Cop or, worse, Coop. You might even hear Lower Copy from an old-timer every now and then.


Mile-um, not Mee-lahm or M’lum. This one may seem obvious, but having worked on Milam for 12 years, where we fielded thousands of out-of-town phone calls, The Drawl can personally attest to the butchery that five little letters can endure.  


As with the French-derived streets,the “correct” Houston pronunciation—M’kawa—is technically wrong.  The last name of Shinpei Maekawa—the Japanese-born rice farmer so honored—should be pronounced more like Ma-ay-kawa, but over time Houstonians have adopted the short “y” sound and ended up with a street that sounds more Scottish than Japanese: M’kawa. But no disrespect is intended—in fact, butchering someone’s name is about the highest compliment a Houstonian can offer. 

Old Spanish Trail

Often rendered simply as O.S.T. but never as Zero Street, though some just-off-the-bus types would have you believe otherwise. 

San Felipe

Hoo-boy, here’s a kettle of worms. From the days of the Republic till, say, about 1990, almost every Anglo native was heard to say San FIL-ip-py. As more and more of them began taking Spanish in school, however, many began to protest that only rednecks and/or dolts would pronounce it thus.  Ergo, we should all adopt the proper Castilian Sahn Fay-LEE-pay, or at least the Tex-Spanglish San Fuh-LEE-pay. (What’s next, people? The Battle of Sahn Ha-CEEN-toe?!) Needless to say, the old San Filippy guard is not going down without a fight. “You give it the proper Spanish pronunciation and people call Immigration on you,” grouses local sage R.T. Castleberry. Let that serve as a warning. 


Senate, not Sigh-not.


While this street is pronounced the way it looks, Lucas Gorham of rock band Grandfather Child says he often hears people say Tellesepen, while others have heard Tailspin. We pronounce the latter Awesome.


Contrary to popular legend, Tuam is a not a Vietnamese word (though part of the street runs through what once was Little Saigon). Instead, it takes its name from the County Galway town that gave Houston its beloved Irish tavern-keeper and Confederate war hero Dick Dowling. Old-time Houstonians say Too-um, but a rural Galway brogue would render it Choom. (Spooky fun fact:  In Gaelic, “tuam” means burial mound, and is cognate with both “tomb” and “tumulus”!)  

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